DENVER – Five times on Sunday night, the Vikings' defense stiffened near its own goal line, holding the Broncos to field goals. Even with Minnesota's first three-turnover game since September, even with their longtime nemesis Russell Wilson on the other sideline, it appeared the red-zone stops might provide enough of a bulwark to preserve a win.
Over the past 11 seasons, though, the Vikings have learned too many times Wilson isn't done without the strike to finish him. For the eighth time in his nine career games against the Vikings, Wilson sent them home with a painful defeat.
The Broncos saved their only touchdown drive for the game's final three minutes, as Wilson lobbed a pass to Courtland Sutton in the back corner of the end zone, and snatched a 21-20 victory away from Minnesota to end the Vikings' five-game win streak. Wilson, who's now 8-1 against the Vikings, completed 27 of his 35 passes for 259 yards.
"We've learned this lesson before: Playing good football teams, you can't give them three extra opportunities," coach Kevin O'Connell said. "We'll have to continue to stress the importance of ball security, and that's what we're going to do."
Denver finished the game without a turnover, while the Vikings gave the ball away three times. The Broncos scored on three fourth-quarter drives, handing the Vikings a Sunday night loss much in the same manner the Seahawks did in 2020: with Wilson throwing a late touchdown pass to a receiver wearing No. 14 while beating a young cornerback.
Joshua Dobbs completed 20 of his 32 passes for 221 yards and a touchdown, but was hit as he threw a second-half interception. The Vikings ran for a season-high 175 yards, but Dobbs' interception came one series after an Alexander Mattison fumble.
After a stretch in September and October where they'd turned the ball over on their opening drive four times in five games, the Vikings had gone three games without giving the ball up to start the game. That streak ended on Sunday night, with a fifth opening-drive turnover that ranked as one of the season's most perplexing giveaways.
With the Vikings facing a third-and-1 from their own 34, they called a trick play where tight end T.J. Hockenson motioned to take the snap from center Garrett Bradbury, before pitching to Dobbs. But as Dobbs strained for the first down, Baron Browning stripped the ball before Kareem Jackson drilled the quarterback with a high hit.
O'Connell said Dobbs was evaluated for a concussion after the play. Dobbs said a spotter called for the test, adding he felt fine after the hit.
Jackson was not penalized for hitting Dobbs in the helmet. O'Connell added afterward, "The way [Jackson] did it, it seemed like a pretty direct helmet-to-helmet hit. But I'm sure they saw it differently."
The Broncos took over on the Vikings 30, and drove for a Wil Lutz field goal to start the game.
The Vikings built a drive at the end of the first quarter with seven runs, bringing their first-quarter to a season-high 72 yards. They would take their first lead of the night with Dobbs' latest moment of ingenuity.
He rolled right, planted his ankles and dipped his right shoulder to shrug off Jonathan Cooper's sack attempt. Then Dobbs reset his feet, hitched twice and flipped the ball to an open Josh Oliver before two Broncos defenders drilled him. The touchdown, punctuated by a thunderous Oliver spike, put the Vikings up 7-3.
Though the Broncos would drive into the red zone twice before halftime, the Vikings held them to field goals both times, taking a 10-9 lead into the half. They forced a three-and-out to start the third, and started their first drive of the second half from their own 31 after a 19-yard punt return from Brandon Powell. Three runs and a Dobbs completion to Jordan Addison put them in Broncos territory, a 19-yard Patrick Surtain II interference penalty made the cornerback's interception moot and Dobbs exploited a gap in the Broncos' man coverage for a 10-yard touchdown run up the middle on third down.
The score put the Vikings up 17-9, with a chance to ice the game on a drive that moved into Broncos territory off a 29-yard Dobbs-to-Oliver completion out of a three tight-end set. But Mattison, who teamed with Ty Chandler to produce the Vikings' best rushing performance of the season, returned to his early-season fumbling issues at a costly time.
He appeared to have a loose grip after taking a handoff from Dobbs on a run up the middle, and got the ball stripped from his hands at the Broncos' 34. Instead of building a two-touchdown lead, the Vikings had to hold Denver to another field goal, with a third-down D.J. Wonnum sack that came when Flores showed a seven-man pressure, only to drop four players into coverage and send three after Wilson.
"It was a big play," O'Connell said. "I thought Alex ran the ball really well tonight, so did Ty. You saw a nice balance of those guys out there. There's no question about it — it was a critical play, but not one that we couldn't overcome."
Up 17-12, the Vikings started their next drive with a K.J. Osborn offensive pass interference penalty that put them in a first-and-20 situation. The Broncos sent five after Dobbs, Josey Jewell hit his arm as he threw and Ja'Quan McMillian picked off the pass.
"They had some blitzes in the red zone, when we got behind the sticks, to kind of handcuff us," Dobbs said. "It's seeing those looks when you're making the protection call. I've got to be better in that situation, because teams are going to continue to do that until I show the capacity to pick up that pressure."
Though it only led to a field goal, and the Vikings drove to the Broncos' 12 on their next possession, they had to settle for a field goal that only brought the lead to five and meant their old bogeyman would have one more chance.
Wilson waited until a fourth down to find Sutton for a crucial 13-yard pickup, then completed his next three passes to Samaje Perine to move the Broncos to the Minnesota 22. With a six-man rush closing in, he lofted a pass to the back of the end zone for Sutton, who boxed out rookie Mekhi Blackmon's belated attempt to deflect it.
"It looked like we were in position. He's a pretty darn good player — a big target," O'Connell said. "When we let them get down there in the scoring range, all it takes is one pitch and catch, and they take the lead, so that's what happened."
The Vikings had 1:03 and three timeouts to drive for a game-winning field goal, but could not advance the ball past their own 36. Dobbs was called for intentional grounding on third down, and heaved an incomplete pass for K.J. Osborn on fourth down.
Wilson kneeled out the final seconds on the clock, and the rain that had held off all night opened over Empower Field at Mile High, adding a backdrop that felt reminiscent of all the heartbreakers Wilson had delivered to the Vikings in Seattle.
"At the end of the game, that's when we have to play our best," safety Camryn Bynum said. "He played his best at the end of the game, and we've got to match that."